Jun 29, 2012

Everything Matters: Book Publicity as a Cultural Act

Editor's Note: The Everything Matters series highlights why the work of particular vocational fields is a cultural act. Each installment serves as a response to the post, Creating a High Calling Culture.

I entered the publishing world through the marketing department—a fact I often felt the need to justify when I told friends, family, or strangers on public transportation. I wasn’t marketing pulp fiction, airy self-help, or how-to manuals. I was marketing Christian books. I was marketing good books by godly men and women who were writing not only to inform and entertain, but to give life. Yet somehow I associated “marketing” with ads and billboards taking cheap shots at human desire.

As a freelance book publicist, I now spend a good part of my job trying to unshackle authors from this same misconception—that publicity, marketing, or promotion of any kind somehow goes against the grain of grace.

Most authors I work with begin writing out of an explosive idea that they are compelled to serve, craft, and cultivate into life. They are like the prophet Jeremiah: “But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9).

But then, sometime in between the dozens of drafts and the time their magnum opus hits the printer, some authors get cold feet. They feel it’s still an important book, but suddenly, to spread the word about it through a publicity campaign would be disingenuous. Suddenly, it’s not God’s message, but “self-promotion.” They feel more comfortable in the high art of the writing process and want to leave the “dirty work” of promotion to me.

I count it my professional privilege to debunk this illusion. I understand that when you’ve poured so much of yourself into a work, it becomes harder to discern the lines between yourself and your art, and easier to equate book promotion with self-promotion. But these don’t have to be one and the same. What often makes the difference is our motives: Are we serving ourselves, or are we serving an idea that we believe will influence lives for the better?

I don’t think anyone ever completely masters this difficult tension. Writers constantly struggle to balance the push for quantified success in Amazon rankings, Twitter followers, and blog stats with the more intangible success of how a book’s core idea is shaping the life of a reader. But one effective way I’ve seen to keep focused on serving the reader—and not the self—is to immerse oneself in the audience.

Writing can be insular work, but beautiful things happen when a book is received in community. One of my authors bravely spoke out on the silent struggle many women experience with pornography. She created a web community for her readers as a safe place to continue working through this sensitive issue. Another author received an email from a woman who works in a prison ministry and loved her book so much she wanted to buy a copy for each inmate; the author donated a case of books. Keeping attuned to who your readers are, what they need, and what you can offer them puts faces to dry sales numbers and keeps serving the reader the main thing.

What finally changed my mind about marketing was a closer look at the Incarnation—the Word of God becoming flesh. I began to wonder if this was also a movement we might pursue in the publishing world, by speaking good words into the world that might become embodied in the lives of readers. If we only use words to serve ourselves, we might create fame, but we won’t create culture. At least not the good kind. Yet if we campaign for ideas that will challenge, equip, encourage, and serve others, we have the privilege of speaking into lives and shaping God’s world, one reader at a time.  

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The "Everything Matters" Collection

Image by Mikko Saari. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Stephanie S. Smith, a 20-something literary publicist, writer, and editor addicted to print and pixels. In addition to blogging, Stephanie shapes culture through (In)dialogue Communications and Twitter @stephindialogue.

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